Hawaii's Top Volcanoes

Each one of Hawaii's top volcanoes is superlative in its own right By: Marty Wentzel
Kilauea is one of the world's most active volcanoes // (c) 2011 HTA/Kirk Lee Aeder
Kilauea is one of the world's most active volcanoes // (c) 2011 HTA/Kirk Lee Aeder

More than 70 million years ago, a series of volcanoes erupted up from the sea floor to form Hawaii. Today, each major Hawaiian island lays claim to at least one of these dramatic landmarks that continue to entice and enthrall visitors with their mystery and power. 

Hawaii's top volcanoes are particularly special because of their superlative qualities. 

One of the World’s Most Active Volcanoes: Kilauea

In Hawaiian, Kilauea means spewing or much spreading, and the name couldn’t be more appropriate. This Big Island-based volcano has been sizzling, steaming and oozing lava since 1983, and it appears to be in no hurry to stop. 

Clients have several ways to visit Kilauea and witness its glory. They can drive up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — a World Heritage site — and explore its reaches by foot, either on a guided tour or on their own. They can soar over its expanses on a helicopter tour which, if the timing is right, provides a bird’s-eye view of glowing lava. 

Boat tours sometimes run along the coastal areas where lava flows into the sea, and visitors can even experience the national park on a guided bike tour.


Tallest Volcano on Earth: Mauna Kea

The translation of Mauna Kea is white mountain, and yes, it’s tall enough to get covered in snow in the winter. While its summit is 32,796 feet above sea level, it extends another 19,000 feet downward to the ocean floor.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano, with its last eruption taking place 4,500 years ago. But perhaps Mauna Kea’s greatest claim to fame is its astronomical lure. Thirteen international telescopes inhabit its summit, taking advantage of its ultra-clear skies. The new California-based Thirty Meter Telescope — the most advanced telescope in the world — is slated to open on Mauna Kea in 2018.

Visitors can have their own stargazing experience at the top of Mauna Kea. Several tour companies lead groups to the summit in time for sunset, followed by a celestial extravaganza. 


Largest Volcano in the World: Mauna Loa

While it stands about 120 feet shorter than Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa — which translates to long mountain — is considered the largest volcano on the planet. With a volume of 60 miles long and 30 miles wide, it covers half of Hawaii’s Big Island with its massive expanse. 

Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843, with its most recent activity in 1984, so it is still considered an active volcano. Scientists monitor it closely for telltale signs of another outburst.

At 13,677 feet, Mauna Loa’s summit calls only to the heartiest of hikers, who usually make overnight stops at rustic cabins along the way. For the average visitor, however, there are shorter hikes like a four-mile jaunt up an old cattle drive route. Along the way, they might spot a few of the endemic birds that call Mauna Loa home.


Best Volcano for Sunrise: Haleakala

Granted, this category of superlatives is subjective, but it’s hard to deny that the dawning of a new day atop Haleakala is unforgettable. Located in east Maui, it is the centerpiece of Haleakala National Park. The translation of its name — house of the sun — evokes the legend of the demigod Maui, who snared the sun while standing on the volcano’s 10,023-foot summit. 

Haleakala has erupted at least 10 times in the past 1,000 years, with many more flare-ups in the past 10,000 years. It’s possible it will blow its top again in the future — for that reason, Haleakala is considered dormant.  

There’s a world of wonder awaiting visitors to this national park, with a great selection of hiking, camping, bird watching, horseback riding and biking opportunities.


Most Famous Volcano: Diamond Head

No natural landmark says Hawaii better than the unique profile of Diamond Head, which ancient Hawaiians dubbed Leahi (brow of the tuna). The 760-foot-high volcanic crater perches prominently near the eastern edge of Waikiki's coastline. It got its English name from 19th-century British sailors who spotted calcite crystals in its walls and thought they were diamonds.

A relative youngster in the Hawaii volcano world, Diamond Head was formed about 300,000 years ago, and is currently considered extinct.

Today, as a 475-acre state monument, Diamond Head lays claim to a hiking trail of less than one mile. The path, built in 1908 as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system, leads up to dozens of steep steps, runs through a tunnel and climbs a winding staircase. Those who persevere are rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the island’s southern coastline.


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